The role of higher education in the refugee crisis

The role of higher education in the refugee crisis

Earlier this year, at EAIE Glasgow 2015, EAIE President Laura Howard spoke of the important role that higher education can play in the lives of refugees entering Europe. This week on the blog, we have contributions from across the continent discussing local responses. We will be highlighting some of the positive ways in which higher education can impact the lives of the affected populations, introduce some common challenges and give insights into existing best practices throughout Europe.

The higher education community undoubtedly has a role to play in the refugee crisis. The plight of the hundreds of thousands of migrants making their way to Europe to escape such horrors as war and poverty is one we cannot ignore. Whether they come from Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo or Iraq – the top four countries of origin of the wave of refugees entering Europe – the countries that receive them are struggling to cope with the influx, and we are seeing division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people.

Basic needs

Of course the initial challenge is to cover the most basic needs of refugees: food, shelter and health care. We can’t forget, however, that education is also a basic need, and integrating refugees and other migrants into our education systems is an investment in a better future for all. It is estimated, for example, that approximately half the refugees from the Middle East have a higher secondary or higher education background and could adapt to EU standards relatively easily. Education can serve as a tool for the successful incorporation of refugees into our societies. So how can higher education institutions (HEIs) support students and scholars from these countries? How can we reach out to the thousands trapped in refugee camps and find ways to help them make good use of their time there by improving their education?

There are many challenges, related not only to funding but also to such issues as recognition of qualifications and prior learning, languages, etc. Many of these challenges need to be addressed at national and/or EU level, but while we wait for (often complex) political decisions to be taken, many HEIs – particularly those nearer the main points of entry – are already putting into place a whole range of initiatives to help those who can benefit from higher education. These initiatives can serve as inspiration and good practices to other institutions looking to find the best way to contribute, and multiply the good work already being done.

The role of institutions

The EAIE also seeks to play its role in this crisis. We support Scholars at Risk, an association of universities that provides real solutions for academics forced to leave their institutions and their countries. We’re preparing an issue of Forum, our membership magazine, on internationalisation in a conflicted world. We’re working with the European Commission, and helped to disseminate the survey that was recently carried out to find and share best practices (preliminary results of the survey can be downloaded from here). And, with this week-long blog post series, we hope to stimulate debate and provide information and ideas for those looking for ways to do their part.

As Baroness Kennedy reminded us during the Opening Plenary at our conference in Glasgow last September (see the video here), we as international educators are vital to peace and justice. The internationalisation of higher education is essential in helping break down barriers and preventing future conflicts. While we wait and push for the large-scale, coordinated response to the refugee crisis that is needed on a European and indeed an international level, we should continue to do all we can and hope it will make a difference.

Laura is the EAIE President.